Allies Are Not Accessories

Corey L. Jamison and Judith H. Katz


At one point, in their continuing efforts to transform the Presbyterian Church (USA) into a welcoming place for the LGBT community, Michael Adee and his colleagues in More Light Presbyterians made a watershed decision: to open the movement to include not only people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered, but allies as well—heterosexuals who are actively supportive of a church that embraces LGBT members.

“We had to change our thinking and our language around this,” Michael said during his presentation at KJCG’s December meeting. “We became not just LGBT, but pro-LGBT [i.e., with both LGBT and heterosexual allies united in a common cause]. It was an acknowledgment that allies are not just accessories.”

This is a difficult decision to make—not just for More Light Presbyterians, but for any movement that seeks to confront privilege and create full inclusion for a “one-down” identity group. Over the past 50 years, many of these movements have excluded potential allies for a variety of reasons: mistrust of the motives of allies in the “one-up” group, fear that people in the one-up group would co-opt the movement, concern that reliance on one-up allies would simply reinforce traditional power inequities.

There is reason for this concern. Our systems and institutions favor one-up groups (and reinforce “one-upness”) because they were created by one-up groups. Individuals who are part of one-down groups have lived with this reality—systems that work for others and not for themselves—every day of their lives. They know that admitting allies from one-up groups can easily lead to ceding the initiative to one-up groups. No wonder they are wary.

Yet as More Light Presbyterians found out, allies are integral to success—and can play a key but differentiated role in change. By joining with the core group, they create strength in numbers. Their commitment to the movement can infuse it with fresh energy. Their street corners can inform the movement without reshaping it—adding depth of thought and breadth of vision that push the movement further toward its goals. And as a one-up group, allies may have access to privilege that can be leveraged for change, provided that the strategies to do so are co-owned (and guided) by the one-down group.

How can people in the one-up and one-down groups partner on important causes?

  • Individuals in the one-down group can recall (and draw on the fact) that they too have one-up elements to their identity. A heterosexual African American man, for instance, experiences being one-down based on his race, and one-up based on his gender and sexual orientation.
  • Both groups must carefully assess the types of power each group has, and how each needs to leverage that power for change.
  • Once aware of the power dynamics, people in the one-up group must proceed mindfully—listening as allies to those in the one-down group and following their lead in creating change. That may mean occasionally leading from the front, or it may mean standing behind those who have been oppressed.

Allies are not accessories. Movements for full inclusion can advance their mission by welcoming them as important contributors. At the same time, allies can be most effective when they provide support that truly advances the mission and strategies of the movement.

Have you been an ally recently? In what way? What can you do today to be a strong ally to LGBT people?